War Stories

Prison Break

Maybe the Army’s not so hidebound after all.

On April 23, I wrote a column that turns out to have been mistaken—that, I’ve since found out, underestimated the U.S. Army’s capacity to reward its creative dissidents.

The column praised two recent speeches by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, urging tomorrow’s Army and Air Force officers to overhaul their bureaucratic cultures. “I encourage you to take on the mantle of fearless, thoughtful, but loyal dissent when the situation calls for it,” Gates told an audience of cadets at West Point. “And … senior officers should embrace such dissent as a healthy dialogue and protect and advance those considerably more junior who are taking on that mantle.”

Gates was referring implicitly to Paul Yingling, the Army lieutenant colonel who, a year earlier, had published an article in the Armed Forces Journal that accused the Army’s general officer corps of lacking “professional character,” “moral courage,” and “creative intelligence.” Yingling was a veteran of both Iraq wars, and, early in the present occupation, he was deputy commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, the unit that brought order to the city of Tal Afar through counterinsurgency methods well before Gen. David Petraeus took charge of U.S. forces.

Yingling was put in command of the 1-21 Field Artillery Battalion—an assignment that had been in the works months before his article was published. In my April column, I went on:

The real story lay in what happened next. His battalion was assigned not, say, to fighting insurgents but rather to prison-guard detail. Yingling himself has just been redeployed to Iraq, where he will assist in rehabilitating Iraqi detainees. This could be an interesting, potentially important job, but it’s hardly in the center of things, and it’s the very opposite of a career-enhancer.

I concluded the column: “[A]s long as junior officers see (as Gates put it) ‘principled, creative, reform-minded leaders’ like Paul Yingling assigned to lowly positions, the military will not nourish many more.”

It turns out that I was wrong on two points. First, contrary to my implication, Yingling’s battalion was not sent to prison-guard duty as a punishment. There isn’t much demand these days for artillery fire in Iraq or Afghanistan. Still, artillery battalions have to do something. There is a shortage of units to guard prisons. So that is where the 1-21 was sent. The planning officers who make such decisions generally have no idea who commands a particular unit. Generals or their aides don’t often reach down into the bowels of this network and redirect small-scale units, like battalions, out of spite. I am persuaded that, in any case, this is not why Yingling’s unit got the assignment that it did.

More crucial (and here is where some good news enters the picture), “detainee operations” in Iraq have become a lot more important—and more innovative—than they used to be. With no fanfare, they have become a key element in the broader counterinsurgency campaign. If Yingling was singled out for his current job, it was in recognition—not in grudge-slinging defiance—of his talents. And, in fact, it seems that he was singled out.

This morning, I spoke with Maj. Gen. Doug Stone, commanding general of Task Force 134, which runs detainee operations in Iraq. On the speaker phone with him was his deputy commander, Paul Yingling.

About a year ago, Stone told me, he and Gen. David Petraeus realized that something had to be done about the detention centers in Iraq. There were two centers, holding a total of 26,000 detainees, and the few jihadists among them were indoctrinating a large share of the rest. “It was becoming Jihadi U. in there,” Stone said.

Stone set out to apply counterinsurgency principles inside the centers’ walls. Find the radicals, isolate them from the other detainees, and give the latter some hope for a life on the outside. In short, secure the population, marginalize the extremists, empower the moderates.

Stone brought in 60 imams to conduct religious classes and more than 200 Iraqi teachers to run an education program, as well as vocational trainers, psychiatrists, counselors, and contractors.

This idea is very different from the U.S. Army’s traditional view of detention—that it’s a one-way street (those going in are never coming out) and that bad guys are bad guys (there’s no point in drawing distinctions).

All the detainees are at least suspected of planning or executing violent acts against U.S. or Iraqi forces—setting off bombs or transporting the explosives or selling the supplies. But surveys indicated that only about 6,000 of the detainees were irreconcilables and only a few hundred were foreign fighters. The vast majority of the rest had no ideological leanings. Most were in it for the money or to avenge the deaths of relatives, caused either by the Americans or by rival Iraqi tribes.

Since Stone’s reforms were put in place, 8,000 detainees have been released, and only 24 have been rearrested.

Stone is quick to admit that he doesn’t know if the program is working. Those 24 returning detainees might be merely the ones who got caught. It could well be that hundreds, even thousands of those let go have not found jobs or peace of mind; they might have gone right back to committing violence.

A monitoring program is set to begin in June. Released detainees will be paid each month to report, and supply some documentary proof, on what they’re doing. This, too, might be of limited use; the ex-detainees might simply lie.

But here’s the point, as far as my April 23 column is concerned: An assignment to detainee operations does not seem to be the dead end that it was just a few months ago, and the deputy commander of detainee operations does not seem to be a job handed out as punishment for past sins.

One point that I did get right: Yingling was not going to be given this or any other important job through normal channels. Stone says that Petraeus specifically wanted Yingling to be put in charge of the new program. It was so out of line with the Army’s traditional concept that the job required a maverick. Yingling was that maverick.

It is not at all clear, however, that this means Yingling will someday be promoted to general or that, once the smoke clears, his superiors will view this job as a laudable milestone on a career path. Despite Gates’ urgings that senior officers protect their loyal dissidents, and despite the fact that Petraeus did just that, there are plenty of generals who still don’t like what Yingling wrote. There are plenty of officers who consider this concept of detention too coddling. There is plenty of institutional resistance to reforms as a matter of principle. There is a fierce—and honest—debate going on over whether, and to what degree, the Army overall should be shifting toward counterinsurgency and away from conventional combat.

Still, things are not as bleak, not as black and white, as I suggested on April 23.